It's late on a Friday afternoon in January, and Judy Lisi, president of the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, is taking a moment to decompress in a lounge of the Essex House hotel in New York City. She's been through three solid days and nights of panel discussions, theater and dance showcases, wheelings and dealings and high-priced cocktails. And star power: In just this one day she's attended lectures by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner and dancer/choreographer/provocateur Bill T. Jones.
"This is huge," says Lisi.
She's not exaggerating. "This" may be the most important marketplace for live performing arts in the United States. Every January, performers, agents and presenters from all over the world come together for the annual NYC conferences of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters and the International Society for the Performing Arts, known to the cognoscenti as APAP and ISPA. This year's assemblage, more than 3,000 strong, gathered at the Hilton and Essex hotels from Jan. 4-11, where they made deals that would determine what Americans will be seeing in arts centers, theaters and concert halls for years to come, and in some cases as soon as this spring.
APAP/ISPA is perhaps the one week of the year when you can expect to find Lisi and her counterparts from Clearwater and Sarasota all doing business under a single roof. Like her, Robert Freedman, president of Ruth Eckerd Hall, and John Wilkes, executive director of the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, travel to New York to see new work, and to polish up relationships with agents and other presenters. Dues are not cheap (about $1,400 for large organizations, and that's before conference and travel fees), and word spreads quickly when deals go bad or when a showcase is a flop. But attendance, the presenters say, is a must - and what they see is, in many cases, what you'll get.
Snappy Dance Theater director Martha Mason is at the front of a small stage, pushing back her hair and explaining the streaming video just over her shoulder. For a moment, you're not sure what you're seeing: the comical image shows a four-legged person plodding about with no head. It's beautiful and odd; Mason expresses a love for the "creepy and absurd," and explains that the piece was inspired by the macabre humor of Edward Gorey.She's only got five minutes to talk - just a moment to convince a few hundred presenters in a conference room to recognize the funky appeal of her Boston-based dance group. But Mason's got at least one audience member's attention: Lisi's. Despite the fact that Mason has been wedged into a line-up of international acts including the stentorian Bill T. Jones, she and her seven dancers were noticed. "I thought it was fresh and accessible," Lisi would later say. "There is a lot of opportunity with that little company."
After the presentation, Lisi seeks out Mason and asks her about Snappy Dance's rates, touring dates and what kind of community and educational work they could do. For this small troupe, a Florida gig would mean more exposure, more chances to hone their art. For Lisi, taking on the roughly $10,000 expense of bringing them to Tampa would mean an infusion of new art into the Bay area, and the chance to enhance the educational programs at the center. TBPAC's operating budget is $30 million, but with five stages to fill and more than 750 events to plan in a single year, the money goes quickly.
Lisi thinks it out. She's also intrigued by another presentation that morning - one by the Canadian-based music-theater company Gryphon Trio. Their 85-minute multi-media performance piece Constantinople contemplates Christian and Muslim themes, and would cost the center about $20,000.
When Lisi returns to Tampa, she and three other staffers attending the conference will decide whether these shows will wind up in an upcoming season. Either could provide an answer to the challenge issued the same day by Bill T. Jones: "Do you want a discourse in your town?" he called out to the presenters. "How do we get people talking in your town?"
For Ruth Eckerd Hall's Robert Freedman and director of entertainment Bobby Rossi, this year's conference answers lots of questions.Questions, for instance, about Whoopi Goldberg. Her ever-changing show has been through so many incarnations, from stand-up routine to legit theater to HBO, that they wonder what they'll be getting if they book her for Ruth Eckerd. But, after attending the conference and seeing the show on Broadway, the two agree that Goldberg's content is right for Clearwater audiences. "[Seeing it] is what sealed the deal," says Rossi.
Meanwhile, Bill Cosby's name has been penciled into the hall's calendar for months, but only tentatively. Ruth Eckerd needs to insure the comedian's agent that Cosby will be guaranteed two area performances (costs are high, shows are expensive and one gig would not suffice). Ruth Eckerd wants to bring Cosby to the area, but needs another venue for a second showing. During the conference, the Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Hall in Fort Myers steps forward. As a result, the increasingly political Cosby will likely be returning to Florida to play both cities in February 2006.